‘I’m willing to go to jail’

Board chairman defiant in opposition to state’s refusal to pay for state-mandated services

NEW FACE, SAME PROBLEM<br>New interim CAO Greg Iturria had the unpleasant task of delivering some very bad budget news to county supervisors Tuesday.

New interim CAO Greg Iturria had the unpleasant task of delivering some very bad budget news to county supervisors Tuesday.

Photo By Robert Speer

“I’m willing to go to jail.”

That was county Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Connelly’s defiant comment when presented with a doom-and-gloom budget scenario at the board’s regular meeting Tuesday (Feb. 10).

Connelly was addressing state officials’ recent announcement that they planned to delay payments to counties for all state-mandated and -funded programs for as long as seven months beginning Feb. 1 to help meet the state’s budget shortfall.

As far as Connelly was concerned, he’d vote to shut down the services before he’d start closing the doors of county departments in order to pay for them. If the state wanted to prosecute him for that, so be it.

Connelly wasn’t alone. “We either eliminate public protection or close state services,” Supervisor Jane Dolan said. “There’s no other choice. We can’t fund state services on the back of local taxpayers.”

Those state services include critical health and human services, such as mental-health and drug/alcohol treatment, child protective services, and Medi-Cal eligibility processing. The state is assuming counties can draw on their reserves or borrow money to cover the costs, Interim Chief Administrative Officer Greg Iturria told the supervisors, but in Butte County that simply isn’t the case.

Butte County does not have such reserves and, given the credit crunch, is unlikely to obtain loans from the private sector, he explained.

The deferral represents $5.7 million per month, or $40 million for the duration, in delayed payments—something that “may force Butte County to close state-funded programs this spring,” Iturria notes in his Fiscal Year 2008-09 Second Quarter Financial Report delivered to the board Tuesday.

Although the supervisors have reduced expenditures this year by 10 percent, Iturria is predicting they will need to cut an additional $18 million, or 22 percent, from the 2009-10 discretionary budget, now forecast to be $79 million. Declining tax revenues brought on by the recession and plummeting property values have contributed to the imbalance (see related story).

“It will be very difficult for the county to meet that shortfall,” Iturria told the supervisors. “If the state doesn’t send money to operate state-funded programs, I don’t see how the county can continue to operate.”

Iturria recommended that all departments be asked to come up with a list of possible cuts and that the board consider them on March 3. He also sought approval to send a letter to state representatives advising that the county in all likelihood will be forced to shut down health and human services, and transportation projects, in early spring if the state doesn’t pay for them in a timely manner. The board unanimously approved both requests.

“This is dire, and our staff realizes it,” Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi said. Unfortunately, state legislators “aren’t aware of the pain we’re feeling up here.” Maybe, he said, if the system “implodes—if we stop services to the very needy, the most vulnerable—maybe they will wake up.”

“This isn’t going to be painful; this is devastating,” Dolan said. Interviewed later, she added, shaking her head sadly, “People are going to die if services are stopped.”